When I was 22, I joined the Peace Corps and taught at an upcountry secondary school in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
Prior to serving in the Peace Corps, I had spent a summer during college in Tanganyika and a second summer living with two different families in India.
Then, upon graduating college in 1965 and inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural challenge – “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” – I embarked on two years that profoundly affected me and my future.
I wrote home frequently, and unbeknownst to me, my mother saved the 91 letters I wrote during those two years.
It is one thing for me to think back on those times – 56 years ago – and another to be able to read what I was actually doing, thinking, and learning at the time.
Recently I had those letters typed, added a few pictures, and, through our wonderful Politics & Prose Bookstore, self published as Letters Home. They have not been changed in any substantive way, other than a few very minor edits.
If you have interest in reading Letters Home, let me know. I’d be delighted to send you a copy.
When both of my parents had died, my mother Esty at the age of 90 and father Sam at the age of 93 1/2, we kept some old papers of theirs we had discovered and put them in a file we labeled as “Memorabilia.”
Yesterday, as Ellen and I were going through and discarding some of the huge amount ‘stuff’ we have stuck into various draws, cabinets, and boxes, I came across something my father had written that we had found and saved. I’m not sure of the date he wrote it, but it was sometime when our two daughters were quite young; so he wrote it at least 30-35 years ago and left it in the back of a drawer in our Orlando home. I don’t remember seeing it while he was alive.
I thought it could have interest for family and friends, not only for how important it is for me personally but perhaps also for others in these difficult days.
Richard & I
The letter with the familiar Sierra Leone postmark came towards the end of his first Peace Corps year. Chatty and whimsical in his usual way, it ended with the startling suggestion – “Sam, you always came to camp on visitor’s day at Samoset – why not now and here? It is probably a rough trip for Esty, but she deserves a separate vacation. Come – we will talk, you will see my segment of Africa, and your citrus will grow even in your absence.”
And so I did. From Orlando to New York to Freetown and then, the toughest part by mammy wagon, to Kailahun. I arrived in the late afternoon, unannounced, to flounder to the rather primitive dwelling my son shared with another Peace Corps idealist. A note on the door suggesting, that since my arrival was indeterminate, I find my way to the school, where Richard and faculty were building an imposing addition.
“You must be Meestah Meeler’s father,” a young voice piped behind me. “And how do you know that?” “You walk like Meestah Meeler.” I curbed the impulse to say, “You’ve got it backwards, kid,” and contemplated a truth revealed. I did walk like my son. Our role reversal was beginning. Here, on turf alien to me, he had established an identify all his own, independent and unconnected by any umbilical chord.
Pure pleasure to be with him – his obvious love and joy at the reunion matching mine. After the ground nut stew supper and news catching up, he said, “”Let’s talk about Ellen,” and we did. She was finishing college during his Peace Corps stint, and Esty and I had recently driven to New Jersey to vist and spread around some parental blessing. A lovely girl, our son had chosen, and we talked late of plans and marriage and the difficulty of separation.
The village chief, with a gesture of hand to breast, gifted me with a robe of country cloth. His praise singer informed me that the gift and gesture were unusual – the hand motion indicating he took me to his heart. Not that he truly knew my inestimable worth, but an indication of the community regard for my son.
Maybe the child is father to the man. Of course, it is warming to know that one’s flesh and blood has his own strong and sure identity, yet there is an ambivalence. The years had rushed by and regrets coursed through of missed words, missed chances, and missed touches.
Two days before his sixteenth (the legal driving age in Florida), Richard, his grandfather (Rob), and I went to Reed Motors in downtown Orlando. He had saved his bar-mitzvah gelt, his money from his two summer labors with an idiot stick in the groves, and our modest additions to bring it to a grand total of eighteen hundred dollars.
The Monza on the lot was his heart’s desire. Color, line, sleekness — all exactly right. The best deal was an even two thousand dollars. Rob started to reach into his pocket when callous, arrogant me caught his arm and told the man if he could find a way to accept our eighteen hundred dollars, call us at home at this number. Richard, with a slight lip termor, nodded at me and we walked away,
If I could only relive that day and save my good son that two hour agony until the call came saying it was ours
When he was nine or ten, with Jimbo, he built a tree house in the big oak fronting our Florida house. I came home tired and hot from the packing house and grove to face the small problem. I had visions of fifteen foot falls, hurts, law suits, and assorted ills. Balancing his enthusiasm while understanding my problem, we discussed it fairly amicably. At his suggestion, we resolved it thusly. I would climb into the tree house and if after stomping, banging and shaking , it survived. I would withdraw my objections. To my mild consternation, that solidly built hut withstood my assault. He was gracious in triumph and exercised care and prudence in maintaining security.
And he returned, after the two years, from Africa – bearded and some how bigger – to get a doctorate and start teaching at Kennedy High School in Washington, a rather unorthodox and free wheeling, open sort of school. On one of intermittent visits to DC to visit Richard and Ellen, now safely married, he suggested I spend a day at school. Seated in the rear, trying to be unobtrusive, I was bemused by the freedom and interplay betwixt student and teacher — a far cry from my high school experience.
Halfway through the first hour Richard announced, “we have a visitor.You have heard me mention my father; well he is that guilty party sitting in the back. You want to pump him. All I will add is that he thinks I am somewhat square and he will be honest with you.”
After about thirty seconds, the kids started firing, “How did your relationship come? Did we talk about sex? Why did I think him square? What was Esty like? How come we let him go to India on the Experiment in International Living when he was in his teens?”
The whole tenor of the hour left me with a sense that these adolescents hungered for communication with their parents that generally was non-existent; and a profound sense of gratitude at what we had.
With some of the faculty at Kennedy, Richard started a program for emotionally disturbed teenagers that came to be known as The Frost School. One of the teaching techniques involved the use of a video camera. On various holidays and family visits, Ellen borrowed the unit and video taped — a nice way to enfold us into their lives and keep us abreast of Annie, now seven, and Beth now three.
The last tape depicts Beth on my bearded son’s lap gravely discussing her day. “You went to the doctor with mommy?” Vigorous nodding of the head. “Why? “My ear hurt.” “What did the doctor do?” Indignantly, “He put a stick in my mouth.” “What?” “Yes he did.” “If your ear hurt, why would he do such a silly thing?” Giggle, “I don’t know.”
Why my sudden ache and nostalgia to have my forty-two year old an infant in my lap and to gravely joke with him as he is now with Beth? Is there ever enough? What I would give for one more day — to ride the groves, to talk of my day and his day; of what he and Jimbo fell out about — the Little League prospects and maybe girls; and I would try not to hug him too tightly.
Ah, the magic clock. We have four grandchildren, the two girls in Washington and two older grandsons, courtesy of Richard’s slight older sister, Janet. (I suspect that he thinks I am soft in the head as well as heart about my first born.) Why then, the fantasy of turning back the clock and longing for one more day? “Dote” is the hackneyed accurate word re the grand children; and our relationship with our children strikes me as rare. They embrace us and include us in their lives. Filial piety, in the Chinese sense, is rendered in full measure. But I want one more day.
If, like Sisyphus, it were granted by the Gods, I would merit the same punishment and receive the deserved doom There is never enough.
The photos below were sent to me by a friend from Sierra Leone, West Africa, following a mudslide August 14 just outside the capital of Freetown. Warning: they are not easy to take.
Hundreds of dead bodies have been recovered and burial graves are being dug. Four hundred people are known dead and perhaps another thousand have yet to be uncovered. This has only lightly been touched in the US media.
The Sierra Leone friend (he currently lives in the Washington, DC area) who sent me these photos lost his niece, her husband and her two children. At least 18 other members of this friend’s family are still missing, along with many others who had moved to the Freetown area from my friend’s village.
As in many disasters such as this, there are many needs to be met, and a call has gone out for assistance. And of course, this is personal to me as I was in the Peace Corps there in 1965 to 1967.
Here are three possible organizations that I am aware of that are reputable groups providing assistance. If you are able to help, please consider donating to one of these (or any other that you may know of that can responsibly provide assistance to those in need):
Global Giving(Includes 10 different projects that are providing relief in Sierra Leone)